Prison guards union seeks court action

California's prison guards union, which has been without a labor contract for 21 months, is going to court to force the state back to the bargaining table.

The unusual legal maneuvering is an end-run around the Public Employment Relations Board, which earlier rejected an attempt by the California Correctional Peace Officers Association to get the state to resume negotiations. But the 30,500-member CCPOA said PERB's denial paved the way for the prison officers to seek other legal remedies, including a Superior Court suit. The geographic region of the suit has not yet been determined.

The state Department of Personnel Administration, which represents the governor in negotiating collective bargaining agreements with state employee unions, made its final offer to the union in September 2007 and does not plan to resume talks.

CCPOA also said more lawsuits are likely stemming from the acrimonious, drawn-out talks.

On March 11, CCPOA asked PERB to seek a court order to force the personnel department to resume bargaining. PERB denied that request one week later. A hearing in April before PERB will determine whether a change to the final offer involving a reduction of the length of time the offer stands is grounds for a reopening of bargaining.

"The process for impasse resolution is decidedly weighted against the members of all employee associations. We seek to bring that inequity to light and pursue avenues for resolutions which are mutually beneficial for all state employees," said CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran.

Ryan Sherman, another CCPOA spokesman, said the recent PERB denial was not unexpected and exemplifies that the union has "exhausted administrative remedies."

PERB says it has exclusive jurisdiction over California's law, known as the Dills Act, which governs collective bargaining. PERB spokesman Les Chisholm said a final decision by PERB can be appealed by appellate courts, but he said a denial of an injunction request does not qualify as a final board decision.

"That may be their contention, but we're going to Superior Court," said Sherman. "Our concerns can be adjudicated by a fair jurist instead of handpicked local appointees by the governor."

"If there are any hearings scheduled outside of PERB jurisdiction, then I haven't heard of it," noted Chisholm.
CCPOA members have worked without a contract since June 2006.

The final offer issued by the state in September 2007 contained a 5 percent pay increase for prison employees, better health benefits and sick leave, and an allowance for damaged uniforms. A correctional officer's pay ranges from about $45,000 per year to $73,000, before overtime, benefits and bonuses.

The union did not specify which provisions of the state's last, best and final offer it found unacceptable.

"We're not putting anything out because it doesn't mean anything to DPA," said Sherman. "We've proposed rolling over the previous contract. We'd like that as a starting point."

The previous contract, ratified by the union in 2002, made correctional officer salaries contingent on those of the Highway Patrol, keeping the prison officers' pay some $666 a month below the scale for the Highway Patrol union. The salaries and benefits of prison employees and their supervisors total 40 percent of all the personnel costs in the state's general fund.

After submitting the final offer, the DPA sent letters out to CCPOA members explaining plans to find an author for the governor's legislation for a 5 percent salary increase, increase in health benefits, and a $2,000 new recruit bonus.

It was a promise, however, that the union didn't approve of. In a letter sent to CCPOA members, union President Mike Jimenez said, "(DPA is) already seeking an author for legislation to destroy CCPOA and our members' rights under the Dills act."

The Dills Act, the statutory scheme governing the collective bargaining relationship between the parties, requires the state to "meet and confer in good faith regarding wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment with representatives of recognized organizations," such as CCPOA. A provision of the Dills Act says that a last, best and final offer is not a substitute for good-faith bargaining.

Said Sherman, "Whether we oppose or support (its action), DPA made a promise they were going to (find an author)."

"We tried mightily to get an author," said Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for DPA. "Since no legislators stepped up to carry the bill, we're still at a point where we can't provide economic changes that we sought. We can't just give them raises, even though that had been part of our implementation package."

"The situation will go on until there's a change in bargaining circumstances," she added.

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